Using a wheelchair isn't as easy as pushing the wheels and setting off. There are many obstacles, gravel, grass, potholes, just to name a few. However, a program at a Halifax hospital is giving wheelchair users the tools and skills they need to navigate the world safely.

John Boutilier has been attending the Wheelchair Skills Program at the QEII Health Sciences Centre twice a week for the past month and a half. The program teaches wheelchair users a variety of day-to-day skills.

“We do potholes, we do thresholds, we do gravel, the mattress simulator for grass and sand,” says Boutilier.

Cher Smith is an occupational therapist at the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre. She says the program starts with the basics, then moves to more advanced tasks.

“For some users it may be curb climbing and even stair descent, if that's a goal,” says Smith.

The program is offered to inpatients and outpatients and those using manual chairs, power chairs, and scooters.

There are also training opportunities for caregivers.

“There's lots of people that can do many skills on their own, but then at some point, their physical abilities will top out and at that point we teach caregivers as well to assist so that, as a team, they can do everything they need to do when they get back home,” says Smith.

Dr. Lee Kirby specializes in rehabilitation medicine. He says the program, which first started in 1996, evolved from wheelchair research starting in the early 80s.

“When lightweight wheelchairs were first introduced, we noticed people were tipping over in them more often than we thought was wise or appropriate, so we started looking into that,” says Kirby.

The Wheelchair Skills Program now consists of three parts – a questionnaire, a hands-on skills test, and the skills-training component.

Boutilier says he noticed the benefits on a recent excursion to the park.

“Of course there's gravel walkways and paths, littered with rocks and roots and we were able to maneuver around them popping over the rocks, popping over the roots,” says Boutilier.

Smith says seeing people like Boutilier make that kind of progress is one of the best parts of her job.

“It's fairly common that people will come in and not even be aware of what skills they actually can have and what abilities they will grow into having,” says Smith.

“Hopefully by the time I leave here I'll know, any obstacle I come across, I'll know how to get over it, get around it, or problem solve it,” says Boutilier.

Dr. Kirby says the Wheelchair Skills Program model is being used more and more.

The program's website has over 50,000 users, from 171 different countries.